It seems no matter what career stage you are in everyone has the equal opportunity to make mistakes. Some may be accidents, most are completely unintentional, but assuming that once you’ve reached a certain point in your profession you are immune to failure is a dangerous undertaking (I point you to the saying “the bigger they come the harder they fall”…). Mistakes are going to happen, and often with the worst timing possible. The one comfort is that mistakes are an equal opportunity hazard and they do happen to everyone (even Nuns and CEO’s). So what do you do when you are sideswiped by a mistake you made (big or small) that puts your work in a poor light? There is a brief cycle to consider.
First of all there is the moment of realization. If you are fortunate and picked up on it first you may have the opportunity to fix the mistake before it impacts anyone else. You may need to retract an e-mail or send out a corrected file, but when caught on time, these are usually not career limiting. Cringe worthy, but not career limiting. This kind of mistake is fairly low in the hierarchy of mistakes, so lets go to the top. The mistakes we tend to have burned into our psyche are the ones that were more public, that impacted others or that really made a mess of things.
These are a lot tougher to absorb and manage, especially in the heat of the moment. These may come about as a result of someone giving you constructive feedback or “stuff” hitting the proverbial “fan”. You are likely to react emotionally at first (at least inside the sanctity of your own mind), this is a perfectly human reaction and you need to allow the emotion it’s brief moment, usually culminating in a mental “Oh *$*@!”. However, you can’t stay here, you either need to lean into the issue, or ask for a moment to collect yourself so you are able to grasp what to do next. This is important because people will often remember more about how you reacted to the feedback on the mistake then the actual mistake itself. Giving someone constructive feedback requires a measure of courage, if you want to start the process of “fixing” your mistake the first step is listening, and then thanking the person who gave you the feedback, recognizing that it is never an easy thing to do. You may even want to express that you appreciate that someone took the time to do it.
This is never easy, particularly while you are still trying to get your head around what has happened. However, it will go a long way to helping people see you are more than the sum of your mistake. Then, once you have a good feel for what when wrong and what needs to happen next, go do it. And do it well. This may not include actually fixing the mistake you created, sometimes you get to support the person brought in to fix your mistake. Commit to what needs to be done, and complete it in a way that makes it simple and comfortable for everyone. This does not include dramatic acts like resigning, opting out of the mess completely (stating “I’ll just make it worse”) or “laying low for awhile”. While those may all be things you want to do, there is no way any of those things are going to get you your dignity back or regain the trust of others. The only way out of a bad mistake is thorough.
At the end of time a mistake (like many other things) will end up in your memory and diminish, especially if you handled it well. However, a mistake you ignore (like unrefrigerated fish) starts to stink immediately, and the longer you wait the harder it is to get through it (and get rid of the “stink”).
Expectations are part of our mental programming. Without them we wouldn’t accomplish very much as they are a key source of motivation and goal setting. However, they are also a source of emotion for us, they can provide joy (when our expectations are met) or something more negative like anger or shame (when our expectations are not met). Expectations are tricky as we may not always be aware of the expectations we’ve formed for ourselves or others. What is really interesting about expectations is that they are the most fundamental source of anger, particularly when they are not met (for a great article on this aspect of expectations please see http://www.eidi-results.org/articles/TheExpectationsGame.html).
Lets “test drive” this link between expectations and emotions. Examine the last time you were angry (with yourself or with another person), what was the source of the anger? Give yourself a few minutes to puzzle this through, as you may need to push past thoughts of “I was so stupid” or “person X was so selfish”. Go deeper, push past judgment (which we all do as perfectly imperfect humans) and really get to the foundation of your concern. Likely what you find at the bottom is an expectation that was not met. The judgment is your narrative around why what you expected to be present should have been there and it drives emotion (which is ever-present) to a whole different level. Voila, strong emotion. This is something that happens for everyone, it transcends culture and gender. It is a part of being human. So what can we do with something we need, like expectations, but is also the basis of amplifying our strongest emotions (often when we least expect it)?
First, apply self-compassion. This is simple and makes sense, but is much harder to do in practice. However, it is a key step to ensuring you understand that what you feel is important – you need to give your emotions their moment. How you do that is the cornerstone to maintaining your relationships with others and (in the case of anger) you wouldn’t be the first person to head to the washroom to have a little venting session in private to keep your relationships (and self esteem) in tact. It always helps to manage the way you present yourself by having coping tactics close to hand (go for a walk, close the door to your office for a few minutes, sit in your car, etc.). Remember, you are human and you ignore that at your peril. What happens next is really important to the process of being able to manage those emotions as sitting with them for a few minutes and naming them (“Oh, I am so upset right now, I feel angry!”) is just the tip of the iceberg. Recognizing that you are allowed to feel the way you do, but that you also need to move on to objectivity, is the path to managing the swell of strong emotion.
Objectivity is illusive, but near to hand. It can be as simple as saying “I am really upset right now and not seeing things clearly” – that (in the heat of the moment) is an important measure of objectivity. Many of us think that objectivity is about seeing things completely from another point of view (changing our opinion), but what we may not see is that objectivity comes on a scale. Part of self-compassion is allowing yourself the time to move up that scale from “I am not seeing things clearly” to “I can see this from another person’s perspective”. Without the ability to move up that scale we force ourselves to live in anger (or fear, shame, etc.), which takes a lot of energy and requires a lot of “mental real-estate”. It can plague our thoughts, coming to us at unwelcome times when we’d rather be enjoying ourselves. Sometimes, even with the benefit of time, we may become resistant to looking at things in another way or asking questions to gather more information - we just don’t want to be objective, sometimes we just want to be right. Except that when we are not objective we’ve never been further away from being right (or more accurately, being just) – it is a paradox. It is all part of being human; if you want expectations and emotions to stop dictating your feelings and actions then consider giving yourself the time and space to move up the scale of objectivity. You don’t have to make it all the way to seeing things completely from another point of view either. All you need to do to help yourself emotionally is recognize that there is more than one side to an issue and you can’t always “see” it; by acknowledging that there may be more to it (and that the something “more” may not support your current thoughts or judgments) you give yourself room to move and to breathe. In addition to allowing you to cope with your emotions, it can also re-scale your expectations (making them much more manageable and achievable).
Why is objectivity, and being aware of how our expectations drive emotions, important? Because it is how we “show up” in life. While many of us are masters at managing our emotions, it doesn’t mean that our opinions and judgments aren’t subtly leaking out, becoming apparent to others. Our reactions form a pattern of behaviors (large and small) that are discernable to others over time – both positive and negative. It’s much easier to see from “outside” than from “within” (which is why we can’t see this consistently in ourselves). The negative pieces are usually fueled by unmet expectations and are the most apparent to others. There is an illustrative quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn that says “Wherever you go, there you are”, which is true, we can only be ourselves (whether we want to or not). One way to “see” ourselves more objectively is by reflecting on our expectations and how they are driving our emotions.
How we chose to look at something often dictates how we “show up” and we can sense this in others, but may not be able to see it in ourselves as clearly. What seems to matter most in today’s workplaces (especially from an emotional intelligence perspective) is how we show up under stress. Negative stress is an energy vacuum, sucking the “wind out of your sails” or diminishing your desire to jump out of bed and tackle the challenges of the day. In speaking with an emerging leader who is currently experiencing negative stress you see how it can impact the way you appear to others (or “show up”) without meaning to. “I didn’t realize it, but since they cancelled the project I was working on I stopped interacting with staff as much as I used to, I became quieter and less open to joining others for lunch or after work.” Struggling with adjusting after an exciting project was cancelled, this leader acknowledged the pitfalls of his behaviour.
“I realized pretty quickly people assumed I was sulking, and maybe I was, but I also knew that couldn’t continue. The way I got onto that project in the first place was through interaction, seeking out others, asking questions, seeing hard to achieve objectives in a positive light. There was always a chance the funding would be pulled from the project, but that doesn’t mean another project won’t come along. I’ll be asked to work on other interesting initiatives if I’m perceived as being the ‘right guy’, and the ‘right guy’ is the one with a good attitude.”
Admirably, this leader has “seen” what needs to happen next, but it can be a challenge to get there, especially if your energy or motivation has diminished. A colleague of mine who has been working in high stakes companies for decades agrees; “You need to give yourself time to grieve the loss, which may sound mellow dramatic, but in truth most human beings can’t just ‘bounce back’ after bad news. You need to give yourself time to work through it, but pick how long that will be and stick to it.” Easier said than done, but there are steps you can take to help move yourself along. First though, when you do that grieving, don’t do it publicly – remember how you “show up” will be remembered by many, and bad news travels faster than good, so have a plan for what you will do when bad news strikes. It can be as simple as going for a brisk 15 minute walk at work to making plans for spending time with people outside of work who support you. Whatever you need to give yourself that bit of space to collect yourself, because that is the foundation to what happens next.
Key to moving on from bad news is objectivity. Much like what our emerging leader stated in his quote earlier, most bad news is temporary. In the really big picture it is a setback, but not a life-changer. As much as it can feel “life altering” because your faith has been shaken or you are still upset (maybe you even have reason to be), continuing to focus on the bad news reduces what you can see from a “flood of light” to a “pin-point of light”. It’s hard to maneuver when you don’t have enough light and we can all think of people who got hung up on something and were not able to move on – and how that impacted the way they showed up (there is a reason we remember these individuals, and it isn’t likely for their “good side”). Objectivity can also be reached by looking at how your want to be perceived by others and by taking the long view – one professional I spoke to said “I like to look at it this way – will I still be thinking about this when I am in the old-folks home? The answer is always ‘no’ and so I focus on how I want to be seen by others as I move through the present because time makes everything relative”.
Objectivity and seeing the bigger picture do not always address energy and motivation. For that you need to look at an even wider landscape, investing in activities that give you energy, like spending time with loved ones, having a hobby, playing sports or volunteerism. Be aware that you do not want to be dependent on your work and career as your sole source of motivation, optimism and energy. “If everything in your life is being affected by one area, that is a pretty good sign you are not resilient.” states my colleague, and she would know because it’s happened to her. “It is so easy to become withdrawn or a tyrant at home when work isn’t going well, but all that does is makes everything not go well and puts you at risk for becoming completely overwhelmed.” Watch for the signs that you are not moving on (or may feel like “wallowing”) and get curious. There are always reasons for resistance to moving on, but don’t use this exploration as an excuse to re-live the negativity, use this exercise wisely and once you’ve figured out the reasons why it’s been difficult for you to move on “…fix the things you can and leave the rest.” states my colleague. As individuals we are only in control of a limited number of factors, how we chose to react to bad news/bad days is one of them and it’s also the one that can take away the power those types of events have over us.
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Face Book or Linked In.